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After three weeks of lockdown, this is what Kashmir looks like

Riyaz Wani

Jammu & Kashmir remains in a state of shock.

Ever since India’s home minister Amit Shah announced the scrapping of the restive Indian state’s special status (Article 370 of the constitution), people are struggling to come to terms with the new reality—one where their identity and the demographic composition of the state is no longer shielded by law.

There is now a sense of paranoia about what might be in store.

The lockdown in the state, which has now entered its third week, has heightened the uncertainty. People have suddenly been transported to a pre-communication era. There are no phones and no internet. Landlines, which have just been partially restored, are of little use as their penetration is negligible.

People can move within the interiors of their localities and some private transport does ply too, but only up to a small distance. In many cases, a place just 10 kilometres away seems like another country, reaching which involves crossing many security barricades and possibly stone pelting by knots of protesting youth.

Information black hole

The air is rife with fear and rumour.

There are unconfirmed reports of large-scale demonstrations being held occasionally in downtown Srinagar, a densely settled part of the city, which has been the locus of the stone-pelting protests. There is little information flowing in from other parts of the Kashmir Valley, and more so from north and south Kashmir. Reports often float around of some killings during protests but the government vehemently rejects these, acknowledging only minor injuries.

 The air is rife with fear and rumour. 

Daily briefings by the government at Srinagar’s media facilitation centre have become the only source of information about the situation for the people, in addition to some skeletal reporting by some television channels.

Even though local newspapers publish daily, albeit reduced to a few pages, they mainly regurgitate the government version of events. Their content largely comprises the reports of official functions dished out by the state’s information department besides some agency stories on the evolving situation in the state. In the absence of the internet, the papers store and transfer content through pen drives.

In a telling comment on the state of affairs, no local newspaper carries editorial in its edition choosing rather to publish opinion pieces on apolitical issues like environment and health.

The drift of the official discourse, which so dominates the scene, is one of a gradual progression towards normalcy when the situation on the ground presents a contradictory picture. People are in a state of enforced ignorance about the situation.

It is only crumbs of information, sometimes a mix of reality and rumour, that are floating around. The government has largely drained the public sphere of all the news except the one it wants people to know.

History of discontent

But this hasn’t made much of a difference to the public sentiment. An initial sense of shock over the revocation of Article 370 is giving way to alienation and anger. However, it hasn’t so far bubbled up to the surface with the force that it otherwise did in the past.

The last unrest in the Valley broke out in July 2016 as a spontaneous reaction to the killing of the militant commander Burhan Wani. It lasted until the end of the year and left around a 100 people dead and several hundred either partially or completely blinded as a result of the widespread use of pellet guns, which were introduced into the J&K Police’s riot control gear in 2010, when 120 youths lost their lives in a third successive year of summer unrest.

 The government is prepared for the long haul and won’t relax its grip. 

Will things go the same way again once the lockdown is lifted? So far, all signs point towards this outcome, a reason the government seems in no mood to loosen the curbs.

The communication blockade and the security clampdown remain in place. There is no indication that this state of affairs is going to change anytime soon. The government, official sources say, is prepared for the long haul and won’t relax its grip on the situation unless there is some certainty of the prevalence of peace. The understanding is that the Valley will go through its “stages of grief” to finally get used to the new reality.

Post clampdown scenarios

But will people reconcile to the situation? There is no easy answer.

The dominant sentiment in Kashmir points towards a deeper alienation from New Delhi. And it is unlikely that this will change for a long time. “Kashmir hasn’t gotten used to New Delhi’s rule over the past 70 years. It is least likely this will happen now,” says Naseer Ahmad, a columnist. “Now, there is a grievance far bigger than there was at any other time in the past”.

According to Ahmad, Kashmir is protesting right now and the lingering lockdown only attests to this fact. “If there is an unprecedented security bandobast across the state, it only shows that some large public response is sought to be curbed and prevented from unleashing itself,” says Ahmad. “Longer the government continues with this exercise, deeper the depth of public unhappiness is”.

For Gowhar Geelani, a political commentator, the situation in Kashmir now goes beyond any overt expression of the discontent. “The scrapping of Article 370 has fundamentally altered the situation. It has, at once, put the identity and the demographic composition of the state on the line, something that has always been unacceptable to a predominant majority of the people of the state,” says Geelani.

“This has introduced a new factor in the situation, something that has made reconciliation with New Delhi almost impossible. One can be sure of a new potential phase of uncertainty, turmoil and the violence.”

Many Kashmir observers also foresee intensification of the ongoing militancy in the state. Kashmir has already been reeling under a three-decade-long militant struggle for liberation from India.

“Among the many implications of the revocation of Article 370 could be a renewed resort to armed movement in the state. More local youth could be drawn to picking up arms,” says Samaan Ahmad, a journalist. “Besides, Kashmir could also witness an increased influx of militants from Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which will substantially raise the level of violence in the state”.

New political lingo

There is one more post-clampdown scenario being bandied about in Kashmir—the response to the situation by the state’s pro-India politicians currently under detention.

Also termed as the state’s political mainstream, these politicians include three former J&K chief ministers—Dr Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti. They have bitterly opposed the repeal of the state’s special status and vowed to fight for its restoration.

In the runup to the abrogation of the Article 370 on Aug. 5, all mainstream parties had closed ranks against such an occurrence but to no avail.

“Once released, these politicians could also decide to unite and launch a mass movement for the reversal of the Article 370 revocation. Considering the mood in the Valley, such a movement is likely to witness an overwhelming public participation,” says Ahmad.

“Should this happen, the long running movement for freedom will gel with the struggle for the restoration of special rights under India’s constitution. For once, both separatists and unionists may define their politics in adversarial terms to New Delhi, if not sharing the same platform. And this can pose New Delhi its biggest challenge in Kashmir. For the first time in seventy years, it may find no Kashmiri leader is on its side in the state”.

 

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